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Originally published February 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 17, 2009 at 8:54 AM

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Facebook's change of terms raises eyebrows

The blogosphere was abuzz Monday after a popular consumer-affairs blog pointed out changes to Facebook's terms of use that the social-networking Web site quietly made earlier this month. The issue of who controls the data posted to the site is a massive gray area that continues to evolve.

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Facebook knows your age, alma mater and favorite band. It's seen your photos and read messages you sent to your friend. So, can it do anything it wants with that content?

Legally, almost. But in practice, the rules that govern Facebook's relationship with its users are abstract and subject to constant negotiation.

The blogosphere was abuzz Monday after a popular consumer-affairs blog pointed out changes to Facebook's terms of use that the social-networking Web site quietly made earlier this month. The issue of who controls the data posted to the site is a massive gray area that continues to evolve.

Under both the old and new rules, members grant Facebook a license to use content "on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof."

But the revised agreement eliminates language saying this license would "automatically expire" if content were removed from the site.

"They're saying, 'Once data gets in our database, we can do whatever we want with it,' " said Eric Goldman, associate professor and director of the High Tech Law Institute at the Santa Clara University School of Law in California's Silicon Valley.

Suzie White, Facebook's corporate counsel for commercial transactions, announced on the company's official blog Feb. 4 that the site was updating its terms of use. But Facebook didn't send out a mass notification asking users to sign off on the changes. And White's brief post, which didn't call attention to the content license, went unnoticed.

Then, on Sunday, the Consumerist blog, which is owned by the publisher of Consumer Reports, warned readers of the changes by describing the revised policy as, "We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever."

Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg responded to the controversy Monday, posting a note explaining the rationale for the content license.

"When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they've asked us to share it with," he wrote. "Without this license, we couldn't help people share that information."

In a statement, Facebook said its policy of maintaining a license over old content is consistent with general use of its site and other Web services such as e-mail.

For example, if a Facebook member sends a message to a friend, that message remains in the friend's inbox even if the member quits the site.

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The company said this is similar to Web-based e-mail, where sent messages remain archived in recipients' inboxes even if the sender's account is deleted.

Zuckerberg's Monday post sought to downplay fears that Facebook has bad motivations for amassing user data.

"We wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want," Zuckerberg said. "The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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